Our horizons may be expanding, but our homes aren’t. Only a fortunate few can boast of a ground-floor garden. Most of us recreate magic beanstalks in the thin air of high-rise apartments.
So when a friend shifted into her new ground-floor apartment in Gurgaon, she wanted to make the most of the pocket-sized garden. At the farthest corner, they have a kachnar (Bauhinia acuminata), a tree about four years old. When she called in a landscape designer for small-space suggestions, treating that tree as the focus of the garden was a natural first step.
First, she established the tree as an important feature, outlining the base with bricks. This was a much-needed guide to draw the eye to the focal point as soon as one stepped into the garden.
The designer then worked inwards from the border. Of course, the bricks can look regimented and monotonous, a tad predictable. So the very definite outline was broken with a wispy coral plant, also called a firecracker fern (Russelia equisetiformis). The effect, in Bollywood lexicon, would remind many of actor Sadhana’s fringe.
Law of the jungle: The vines look lush and lovely, but is that tree choking?
There goes an old saying that nothing grows beneath a banyan tree. Or most other sturdy trees with a vast canopy, for that matter. But if the tree is a little accommodating, as a young kachnar can be, maidenhair fern can also thrive at the base. In fact, the shade and cool at the base of a tree is just ideal for ferns. The firecracker needs about 3 hours of sunlight a day, but most ferns can do with less.
Once the fringe was in place, the landscaper looked further inside the ring. The red flowers and delicate green fronds of the coral plant were balanced with a coleus in shades of rust. On the other side, facing the sun, she placed a red Mussaenda (Mussaenda phillipica) shrub. Now, that can require some tricky maintenance, since the Mussaenda, unlike ferns, does not like soaking its feet in water even though it needs a decent amount of moisture. But since it gets the maximum sunlight among all the plants in the arrangement here, it looks rather happy.
Finally, a sprig of money plant (pothos or Epipremnum aureum) was tucked into the base of the trunk. The money plant is a popular but iffy addition. If you notice trees that have played host to this vine, it starts off innocuously enough but then gets going, turning into an aggressive, invasive guest that can overrun the ground and the tree. You can almost hear the tree groan, like Ajay Devgn does in his latest film, Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge?
As it grows, the leaves of the money plant become unimaginably large and the aerial roots get more confident and stubborn. The money plant has taken command of hectares of Sri Lanka’s Udawattakele Forest Reserve in Kandy, rather like the pothos in this photograph.
So if you go for the money plant as a creeper companion, keep in mind that the vine will require regular attention to check it before it overpowers the host tree.
What would I have chosen instead? The wisteria can be stunning with its month-long mauve, grape-like flowers; but it too can get rowdy. The golden flame vine is just as robust, tumbling over entire rooftops.
The trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is more of a plodder, though. It doesn’t impose its personality as strongly on the host and its serrated leaves are pretty.
Or, if you want to give your tree an occasional break from the stifling embrace of vines, you could opt for a seasonal flower such as the Ipomea, especially if you live in a place that enjoys a cold winter. Although it can grow wild and vast, most species of Ipomea, tropical flowers all, will wither in winter. That’s when you can cut back the stems and clean up the mess of dry leaves. The tree’s bark, which has its own majesty, is visible once again for a few months—and you can then decide if you want the creeper back the following season.
The author is a journalist and writer of children’s books, with a passion for gardening.
Write to Benita at firstname.lastname@example.org